Do you recommend supplements to your patients? If so, the news that taking too many supplements actually increases the risk of cancer likely stopped you in your tracks and possibly even made you reconsider the health benefits of supplements vs. the risk factors for your patients and what this could mean for your practice long term.
For years, supplements have been touted for their health benefits, including those thought to have anti-cancer properties, such as curcurmin and boswellic acids, which are well-established dietary botanicals with potent anti-cancer properties. In fact, a new study actually suggests that there is a synergistic benefit to taking both together, as stated by Ajay Goel, PhD, director of epigenetics, cancer prevention, and cancer genomics, Baylor Research Institute, Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, TX, who authored a related study.
But on the other side of the argument sits Dr. Tim Byers, director for cancer prevention and control at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, who, last month, conducted a meta-analysis of two decades worth of research, including 12 trials that involved more than 300,000 people, and found a number of the supplements tested actually made individuals more likely to develop certain types of cancer.
Dr. Byers' findings suggest that while eating certain fruits and vegetables can reduce an individual's risk for cancer, taking supplements that provide the same vitamins and minerals as those fruits and vegetables not only failed to provide similar protection, but actually increased a person's cancer risk.
This, of course, is not the first time this has been suggested. Past studies have pointed to an increased cancer risk for patients who took high doses of dietary supplements. In a 2011 study, for example, researchers found that taking high-dose vitamin E supplements was linked to a 17 percent increase in cancer risk over a sever to 12-year period. Other similar studies have linked women's increased risk of breast cancer to high intake of folic acid supplements.
But not so fast. Did the meta-analysis method used by Dr. Byers do justice to the evidence at hand? Not according to Natural Products Association (NPA) Senior Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Corey Hilmas, MD, PhD, and former Chief of the Dietary Supplement Regulation Implementation Branch within the Division of Dietary Supplement Programs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who questioned the research that linked supplement intake with an increased risk of cancer.
In his argument, Dr. Hilmas points out that dietary supplements are designed to "supplement the diet because consumers do not eat enough of the critical phytochemicals and constituents found in fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods, including fish, on a daily basis. Dietary supplements should be taken as part of a healthy lifestyle and after consulting with one's health care provider."
So perhaps this is where Dr. Byers and his meta-analysis goes awry. Should the study compare the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables to gain the needed nutrients to taking comparable dietary supplements or should it look at both with the need for a healthy lifestyle a must?
There are some other questions surrounding Dr. Byers' methods, according to Dr. Hilmas, like why the 12 "cherry-picked" trials for the meta-analysis failed to include other studies that may have evaluated negative outcomes in a long-term prospective study.
NPA says it welcomes the opportunity to review the finalized manuscript once it is published, and reminds consumers that they "should remain confident that their dietary supplements are safe and effective and can contribute to one's overall health and wellness." This, of course, should also hold true for both your practice and your patients.
Dr Time Byers